Everyone is caught by surprise and astonished by Jesus. Peter is ready to strike with the sword, and to go down fighting if need be, but he does not know what to do or say about the Man who meekly gives Himself up as a Lamb into the lion’s mouth. Judas, too, probably expected Jesus to resist arrest, to defend Himself or fight back in some way, and to prevail in any event. But the betrayer is overcome with remorse and succumbs to despair when he sees that Jesus is condemned and sentenced to death. Pilate is likewise surprised by the silence of the Lamb, who makes no answer to the accusations leveled against Him, though none of those charges should stick. He’s not guilty, but He refuses to argue His case.
Jesus does not do what anyone expects. He does not do what you or anyone else would do. Because He alone is righteous, without sin, whereas all of us have gone astray, and each of us has turned to his own willful pursuits. Ironically, it is precisely in His righteousness, in perfect faith and holy love, that He alone bears and suffers and deals with the full extent of sin. For He takes upon Himself the sins of the world, and He assumes all of the responsibility for all of those sins and their outcome, which no one else could endure, much less overcome.
You are astonished at Jesus, not only because of His unique behavior, but also by the terrifying magnitude of sin, which has finally become evident, only now, in His Passion, in His bloodshed, suffering and death. This is mega-mega-death for mega-mega-sin, and who could have believed it, or even conceived the full extent of it, otherwise? It is too great, too terrible, too devastating. To be confronted with it in the Crucifixion of Christ Jesus, in the marring of His form and His appearance beyond that of any man, is astonishing. In His sacred head now wounded, you see what has never been told before or since. His silence closes your mouth, and leaves you dumbfounded, because in it you begin to understand what no one has ever heard.
You simply don’t know, nor can you imagine or perceive, the depths of the broken-ness and the pervasive consequences of sin, except by the Cross of Christ. For God spares you and suffers its terror and calamity, Himself. You could more easily investigate the fiery heat of the sun at its core than survive the brunt of sin with its onslaught of death and damnation. But Christ the Lord, and He alone, bears it all, in order to save you from it.
To be sure, you do know some of sin’s ravages and hurt. You experience bits and pieces of the fall into sin, and the broken-ness that it has brought, in the mortality of the world and yourself. You know suffering, sickness, sorrow and shame because of it. You feel its sting in the piercing of your conscience, in the crushing of your hopes and dreams, and in the splintering and separation of your family, whether by death or divorce, by the normal transitions of temporal life on earth, or by estrangements resulting from unresolved quarrels.
Some of your hurts are exquisite, festering and raw after years of nursing them, and some of your disappointments and fears are excruciating, painful and paralyzing. Perhaps there are days when you feel certain that you are going under, and that you will surely suffocate. But the worst of it all that you taste and see and feel and experience, in this life on earth, is hardly the tip of the iceberg. What lies beneath would stop your heart cold, before you could blink, and sink your ship faster than the Titanic.
And now, Christ takes all of it upon Himself. You still can’t comprehend the full extent of it; nor should you attempt to do so. But in the Cross you encounter the consequences of it all, and in the Crucified One you find all the hurts and burdens that you have known, fully lifted from your back and laid upon Him.
Do savor this, and ponder it in your heart, that your Lord Jesus Christ has fully taken your place. Under the Law, yes. Under the burden of sin and death, absolutely and completely. But so also in respect to all the details and specifics, be they big or small; the daily irritations, as well as the lifelong hurts and permanent scars. He has taken on the whole bloody iceberg, as well as the cruel little ice cubes down your back.
He has been despised by His peers and forsaken by His friends. He has been teased, mocked, made fun of, and ridiculed. Criticized and complained about. Misunderstood and mistreated.
In the divine Mystery of His Incarnation and Redemption, He fully sympathizes with you in every way. Your particular griefs, He has made His own and shares and feels with you. Your sadness and your sorrows, He knows them all; not from afar, but in His own heart, soul, mind and spirit, personally. Likewise, all your hurts, all your injuries and illnesses, He bears in His own body. Your cancer. Your HIV. Your heart disease and high blood pressure. Your arthritis. Your aching back and joints. Your clinical depression. Your chronic insomnia. He suffers it all.
More than that, He has also been tempted with all of your temptations, with every one of them, exactly as you are tempted. He has allowed Himself to feel and experience the tug and pull of the sins that gnaw away at you, the ache and appeal of your addictions. And though He has not committed any sins, He has made all of your transgressions and iniquities His own, so that exactly your humiliation, your shame, and your regret are now His. Your stigma has become His stigmata. He takes all your scars, inside and out, public and private, and makes them into His wounds.
He does all of this for you in love, but He does much more than sympathize and share your woes. For the depths of your sin and death are not only matched but exceeded by the heights of God’s love for you in Christ Jesus, as He is lifted up in death upon the Cross. He thus makes restitution for all of your wrongs. His eye and tooth are given for every eye that you have blackened and for every tooth that you have knocked out. His Life is given in payment for every life that you have wrecked or ruined, including your own. He repays your debts to the last cent, not with cash or credit, but with His flesh and blood. He suffers your entire punishment for every infraction and every capitol offense. He takes your place, Barabbas, in order to release you.
His suffering is also correctional, remedial and catechetical; and this, too, is for your benefit, for your faith and life and your salvation. Having taken your place, He undergoes this discipline, this boot camp, this apprenticeship, this training unto righteousness. Not that He is lacking in any respect, but He grows and learns, increases and matures on your behalf: vicariously.
Having emptied Himself and made Himself nothing, in the form of a servant, in the likeness of fallen flesh, He humbles Himself before both God and man, and becomes obedient, even unto death. In this He experiences your circumstances and condition — not only human, but mortal; not only as a creature, but subject to the curse of sin and death — and in this very situation, He proceeds and perseveres in perfect faith before God, His Father, and in perfect love for His Father and for you and all His neighbors. He learns what it is to obey in the context of suffering, from within the crucible of your sin and death. Not as though He were previously ignorant, but by making His own what was yours and not His. Therein, beloved, He prays to the Father with the tears of your grief and sorrow, and with the loud cries of your pain and anguish.
This is the righteousness of faith and love with which He responds to, and deals with, all that He confronts and takes upon Himself and undergoes on your behalf. In this the Perfect One is perfected in your stead. He endures your lot and bears the Cross in quiet patience and with steady confidence in the One who sent Him. His loud cries are for the ears of His Father alone, who has given Him this Cup, and who will raise Him up and vindicate Him from out of death. Before men, He speaks mercy, absolution, and peace; He testifies to that Truth of divine Love, and bears witness to the Kingdom of God. He makes the good confession before Pontius Pilate.
But He does not answer His accusers. He does not plead for mercy or release from the human judge who has been given authority over Him. He does not curse or revile His executioners, but prays and intercedes for them, for their forgiveness, as even now He prays and intercedes for you. He is otherwise silent as He is sheared of His garments, stripped naked and made into a public spectacle. He does not squeal or scream as He is led to the slaughter.
It is in this way that He is most different from you, from your parents and your children, precisely in this place of judgment that He has taken from you and made His own. He does not point the finger or pass blame. He does not take vengeance or seek to excuse Himself from your punishment. He does not act as you act, but He willingly takes the heat for all your actions.
Even Peeta in the Hunger Games, kind and compassionate Peeta, gentle and considerate though he is, readily acknowledges that he would kill in the arena, when it came down to it, rather than allow himself to be killed. Self-defense is assumed as a given, a basic human right of self-preservation, as of animal instinct. Stand your ground. Fight for your life. And then fight for your rights. Isn’t that what this recent case of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman turns upon? And in the wake of that shooting, that death, the Martin family fights for Trayvon’s name and reputation, while George Zimmerman and his family contend for his innocence and freedom. Lawyers engage. Politics ensue.
When it’s not self-defense, whether of life or reputation, then it’s too often a case of retaliation or revenge. Like the young man who went on a shooting rampage earlier this week, at the Christian college in California from which he had been expelled.
By the grace of God, you will not open fire on your opponents, but, when you can’t get even, you do resort to grudges and bitterness, hardening your heart against those who have hurt you, withholding forgiveness, and growing colder toward everyone.
There is the tip of that deadly iceberg again, the great mass of which threatens to be your own tragic demise.
But not so, Christ Jesus. He does not defend Himself, fight back, or demand justice from Caiaphas or Pilate. He is not threatened by the attacks of His enemies, but is content with the Word of His Father. He still trusts the promise of His Baptism: that He is a beloved and well-pleasing Son, and, though He die, His Father will raise Him up. His food and drink, in the wilderness of temptation, in the Garden of Gethsemane, and in the Hour of His Passion, are the Will of His Father for your salvation. He finds His satisfaction and His joy, therefore, in bearing the Cross and suffering for you; in laying down His life in love for His enemies, in order to forgive them. Not the seventy-seven-fold vengeance of Lamech, son of Cain, but forgiveness, seventy-times-seven-times over, even for those who nail Him to the Cross. Free and full forgiveness, even for you.
As the Passover Lamb of God, He is poured out to death on your behalf. Like Isaac, the beloved son of Abraham, this dear Lord Jesus calmly and quietly permits His Father to lay Him upon the Altar of the Cross and bind Him to the wood. He knows that He will not be spared the pangs of death, for He is the Lamb whom God has found for Himself; He is the Ram, caught not by any weakness, but by His strength, by His horns, upon the branches of the Tree.
This is what it means for Him to be the great High Priest who blesses, serves, and avails for all people. In His righteousness of faith and love, and in His voluntary suffering and sacrifice for all the children of men, He obtains justification and forgiveness for transgressors.
This is what He gives to you by the Ministry of the Gospel. He sanctifies and saves you by the fruits of His Passion. The Spirit that He breathes out from the Cross, He breathes into you by His Word of Absolution. The message of His Cross is the revealing of His strong arm and outstretched hand, with which He lays hold of you in love and brings you out of bondage.
As He pours Himself out in death upon the Cross, so does He pour out the water and the blood from His opened heart to fill the font and the chalice with cleansing power. These Sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Holy Communion are His sprinkling of the nations with the grace and glory of His Cross. As the Passover Lamb, He is not only sacrificed for us, but His flesh is given for the Feast, with which you are fed. His Body and His Blood are the fruits of the Tree in the midst of the Garden, by which you live forever.
Now, therefore, draw near with confidence to this Throne of Grace. Here you receive mercy and do find grace to help in time of need. Here you are not estranged, forsaken, despised, or cast out, but you are a member of the household and family of God. You are a disciple whom Jesus loves, and so are you also a beloved son or daughter; for He entrusts you in mercy and compassion to Holy Mother Church, in order that you might have God Himself as your own dear Father in Christ. Having fully taken your place as a son of Adam, He fully gives you His place as the Son of God.
He gives you His place! Which means that you now belong to a family which will not and cannot be splintered or separated, because it is bound together by the Blood of Christ in His one Body, crucified and risen. In Him you are reconciled to God and to each other forever.
As the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is now your God and Father, and He is for you, there can finally be no one to stand against you. There is no iceberg anymore to scuttle your boat or sink your ship. You have no need to defend or exonerate yourself, for in Christ you are acquitted and fully vindicated. The silence of the Lamb has silenced every accusation. Your sin is forgiven. Your death is undone. Your adversary, the devil, is stripped of all his power against you. Not hell but heaven is open to you in the Body and Blood of Christ the Crucified.
Astonishing? Yes. But do not be afraid. Remember Him, who here remembers you in love. Not with mere emotion does He remember you, but with active affection and with the tangible forgiveness, life and salvation of His own flesh. Give thanks to Him, who has sacrificed Himself for you. For in Him all things are yours, and you are His, now and forever.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.